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Barbary Wars

1801 - 1815

Did you know that the United States went to war against "pirates"? Yep. It's true.

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How It All Started...

Barbary Slave Trade

Barbary state "pirates" would regularly target non-Muslim traders/sailors aboard merchant ships from Europe and America in order to enslave them, ransom them, or convert them to Islam.


It was customary for countries to try to bribe these state backed corsairs not to attack their ships. (Pirates are not state-backed. Corsairs are. They do the same thing...the only difference is the state backing. Corsairs are the same thing as Privateers.)


The bribe would be a sum of money paid annually called a "Tribute".  The ruler would demand a certain amount in order to ensure no attacks. But sometimes, after an amount was agreed upon, he would demand more, and sometimes the corsairs would still attack despite the bribe. In other words, paying Tribute was no guarantee of safety.


Slave trade has been part of world history in just about ever part of the world.


During the 1700's and 1800's, the Muslim slave trade off the coast of North Africa proved to be especially dangerous for merchant ships trying to use trading routes with the Mediterranean.

[Europeans referred to the four Muslim states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco as the Berbary states (referencing the "berber" people of North Africa). Today we spell it "Barbary".]

American Revolution 


The Barbary Corsairs

Before declaring independence, American colonists were protected under Britain's Navy. Plus, when any ships were seized, Britain would pay the ransom to get them back.

Interesting fact:

1777 - Morocco was the 1st nation to publicly recognize U.S. as its own country when the Sultan decreed that American ships were allowed to enter the Moroccan ports.

1784 - Moroccan corsairs were the 1st to seize an American ship.

I'm not saying that Morocco necessarily had sneaky motivations to recognize our independence...



...but it does seem suspicious, right?


Buying Peace?

One month before the 1st American ship was seized, Congress sent Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate treaties with Europe and the Mediterranean (including the Barbary States).


This is when America first learned about paying Tributes to the Barbary States in exchange for safety on the seas. 


There was a great debate over what to do - buy peace and pay the bribe or build a Navy and go to war.

John Adams was in favor of paying the Tribute, but Thomas Jefferson was in favor of building a Navy. After hearing about the captured ship Jefferson wrote:


"Our trade to Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do something decisive. Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these pirates. If we yeild [sic] the former, it will require sums which our people will feel. Why not begin a navy then and decide on war?"


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